WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump told Americans on Tuesday his administration had accelerated talks for a political settlement in Afghanistan, and would be able to reduce U.S. troops there as negotiations advance to end America’s longest war.
“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” Trump said in his annual State of the Union address to Congress, in which he also said U.S. troops had nearly defeated Islamic State militants in Syria and it was time to bring them home.
After 17 years of war in Afghanistan, Trump praised “the unmatched valour” of U.S. forces.
“Thanks to their bravery, we are now able to pursue a possible political solution to this long and bloody conflict,” Trump said.
He said his administration was holding constructive talks with a number of groups, including the Taliban.
“As we make progress in these negotiations, we will be able to reduce our troop presence and focus on counter-terrorism. And we will indeed focus on counter-terrorism,” Trump said.
Trump offered no specifics about when he would bring home the 14,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan.
U.S.-led forces in 2001 toppled the hardline Taliban for harbouring the al Qaeda militants responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.
“We do not know whether we will achieve an agreement - but we do know that after two decades of war, the hour has come to at least try for peace,” Trump said.
In December, a U.S. official said Trump was planning to withdraw more than 5,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, triggering worries about whether a smaller force would be able to fulfil missions under way and stabilise the country.
When he campaigned for president in 2016, Trump said he wanted to focus more on domestic issues than foreign conflicts.
However, Trump’s sudden announcement in December that he would withdraw U.S. forces from Syria alarmed allies and many current and former U.S. officials, who worry that Islamic State militants remain a threat.
After the speech, Democratic Representative Eliot Engel, chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, said Trump’s Syria plans did not seem well thought out, and could put U.S. allies like the Kurds and Israel at risk, while empowering Iran.
“We’ll probably come back at a future date, with much more danger to our troops,” Engel told Reuters.
Earlier on Tuesday, General Joseph Votel, head of the military’s Central Command, warned that Islamic State would pose an enduring threat.
In his address, Trump said Islamic State controlled more than 20,000 square miles of territory in Iraq and Syria. “Today, we have liberated virtually all of that territory from the grip of these bloodthirsty monsters,” he said.
Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Mary Milliken and Sonya Hepinstall